In a recent piece of television analysis, Ruud Gullit claimed that the reason Arsenal will struggle to pip his former club Chelsea to the title is their inability to control a match. Although the criticism may have felt peculiarly partisan, most Arsenal fans would have to admit that Gullit may have a point.
It’s an area where Chelsea excel. Under Jose Mourinho, they have become masters at comfortably protecting a lead. Once they go ahead, it is notoriously difficult to peg them back.
They are almost capable of going into auto-pilot, looking after the minutiae and ensuring the scoreline remains tipped in their favour. It’s an invaluable skill for a team to have. As the season wears on, they can afford to pace themselves. When the title race invariably hots up, Mourinho’s teams are able to employ an eerie calm, killing games off with a minimum of fuss. It’s not exciting, but it’s certainly effective.
Arsenal are a rather different beast.
Take, for example, their recent victory at Crystal Palace. Although it was undeniably fair for the Gunners to take all three points, it should have been a far more comfortable win than it was. In the last 10 minutes, Arsenal found themselves having to soak up an undue amount of pressure from a dogged but tired Palace side. The classy Gunners suddenly found themselves on the ropes.
To be fair, they didn’t go down, and that’s an area where Arsene Wenger’s men have improved significantly.
A few years ago, Arsenal would have crumbled under even the meekest of sieges. However, since Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny struck up their beautifully balanced partnership, Arsenal’s capacity to defend a lead has improved. They now have a pair of centre-backs capable of withstanding a late onslaught.
The question is: should they have to?
Arsenal have gained the ability to produce last-ditch heroics, but that means they’re often dicing with death. A team with their technical ability should not have to resort to desperation to retain their advantage. Arsenal’s willingness to dig in is admirable, but it needn’t come to that.
They have the talent to suffocate matches in an entirely different manner. When they’re ahead, they ought to be able to pass teams into submission.
Mesut Ozil is a player who is often cited as failing to make a major defensive contribution, but this is where he could come into his own. Ozil’s ability to keep the ball could enable Arsenal to retain possession and ensure their own goal does not come under significant threat. With the likes of Santi Cazorla also helping to orchestrate the Gunners’ precision passing game, Mertesacker and Koscielny ought to be spared from producing too many desperate interventions.
There’s also an issue of efficiency in the final third to consider. Had Arsenal’s finishing been better against Palace, they would have been out of sight before the full-time whistle. Alexis Sanchez’s rustiness was in evidence as he spurned two glorious chances to establish what would surely have been an entirely unassailable lead.
Arsenal have learnt to defend; now they need to learn to control.
Rather than being reactive in how they protect their leads, they need to find a proactive way of ensuring they see games out in a winning position.
That, more than anything they can do in the transfer market, may help them close the gap on Mourinho’s Chelsea.
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